Ukrainian commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny is not known for seeking the limelight, but his recent interview and essay in Britain’s The Economist magazine made headlines worldwide. International attention has largely focused on Zaluzhny’s claim that the war with Russia has reached a stalemate, with some using the Ukrainian leader’s comments to bolster calls for a negotiated settlement with the Kremlin.
This has provoked a political backlash in Kiev, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy directly contradicting Zaluzhny and publicly rejecting claims of an impasse. Speculation over a possible rift between Zelenskyy and his army chief has overshadowed the Ukrainian general’s detailed analysis of the war. This is unfortunate, as Zaluzhny’s comments are worth further investigation. Besides acknowledging the current stalemate on the battlefield, Ukraine’s most senior officer has also outlined a plan to defeat Putin’s Russia.
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In his interview and essay, Zaluzhny seeks to explain how technological advances on both sides of the front lines currently favor defensive operations, while making any major offensives extremely expensive. The fighting in 2023 has provided ample evidence of this trend, with Ukraine enjoying defensive advantages in places such as Avdiivka and Vuhledar, while Russia has had the upper hand in the south on the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson fronts. “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough,” comments Zaluzhny.
The current dominance of defensive tactics on the battlefield works in Russia’s favor, as Ukraine cannot afford to let the conflict freeze along the current front lines. As Zaluzhny acknowledges, a static, positional form of warfare would greatly benefit Russia, allowing Russia to rebuild its military power before eventually threatening Ukraine’s armed forces and the state itself. Ukrainian commanders have far more limited resources at their disposal and must aim to maintain momentum as they seek to liberate around 20 percent of the country and liberate millions of citizens from Russian occupation.
Zaluzhny sees technology as the key to regaining the battlefield initiative and ultimately defeating Russia’s invasion. In a war that has already seen the unprecedented use of everything from naval drones to cyber attacks, he argues that victory will go to the side that can best exploit the potential of existing and new defense sector technologies. “The simple fact is that we see everything the enemy does, and they see everything we do,” Zaluzhny writes. “For us to break this deadlock, we need something new, like the gunpowder that the Chinese invented and that we still use to kill each other.”
Zaluzhny’s plan for future victory over Russia has emerged relatively early in the conflict. A century ago during World War I, which is widely seen as a similarly deadlocked conflict characterized by the rise of defensive tactics, new technologies did not begin to create openings for offensive operations until the third or fourth year of the war. It is also notable that nothing comparable to Zaluzhny’s candid analysis has emerged from the Russian side, despite the reputation of Putin’s Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Gerasimov as something of an innovator.
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Despite his emphasis on the importance of new technologies, Zaluzhny’s vision for future warfare does not rely on a single “wonder weapon”. Instead, the Ukrainian general outlines the importance of effectively combining drones, electronic warfare, counter-battery fire and new mine-clearing technologies.
Ukraine is now counting on its partners to supply more of these advanced military technologies. While Zaluzhny is careful not to criticize Ukraine’s allies when commenting on the military aid provided so far, he hints at a reluctance to send the most modern technologies and notes frequent delays in deliveries. “It is important to understand that this war cannot be won with the weapons of the previous generation and outdated methods,” he says.
Zaluzhny argues that electronic warfare (EW) capabilities hold the key to victory in the drone war and acknowledges that Russia currently has a clear advantage in this area. He advocates expanded production of anti-drone EW systems in Ukraine and abroad, and also calls for greater access to electronic intelligence from Ukraine’s allies, including data from assets that gather signals intelligence.
Zaluzhny acknowledges that technology alone cannot defeat Russia. He notes the need to build up Ukraine’s reserves and close loopholes in existing legislation that allow citizens to avoid military service. He also calls for a more modern approach to command and control within the Ukrainian military, “so we can visualize the battlefield more effectively than Russia and make decisions faster.”
Ukraine’s commander-in-chief warns against underestimating Russia. He emphasizes that despite heavy losses since February 2022, Putin’s army will continue to have superiority in weapons, equipment, missiles and ammunition for a long time. Reading Zaluzhny’s detailed and sober analysis, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that time is not on Ukraine’s side.
Throughout his interview and his essay, Zaluzhny repeatedly emphasizes the dangers of a long war, which he says would heavily favor Russia with its vastly greater human and material resources. “A war of position is a protracted war that carries enormous risks for Ukraine’s armed forces and its state,” he warns. The solution, Zaluzhny insists, lies in the effective use of the most advanced defense technologies. “New, innovative approaches can turn this war of position back into a battle of maneuver.”
Mykola Bielieskov is a researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies and a senior analyst at the Ukrainian NGO “Come Back Alive.” The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the opinions or views of NISS or Come Back Alive.
The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.
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